Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Doctor Who: The Keys of Marinus


Cody follows the Doctor on a quest for keys.


There's a bit of a pattern to be spotted in the first season (or first series, as they would say in the UK) of Doctor Who serials. A serial will take place in Earth's past, like 100,000 B.C., then the next will have a more sci-fi type of setting, like The Daleks. The Daleks was followed by The Edge of Destruction, which was made to fill some time, but then we got back to the past with Marco Polo. So now that we're coming out of the year 1289, the Doctor and his companions on this ride through time and space in the-out-of-control TARDIS land on another planet.

The planet is called Marinus, and as soon as she sees that the TARDIS has landed at the edge of the sea, and near a tidal pool, the Doctor's teenage granddaughter Susan is determined to take a dip. Luckily, she accidentally drops a shoe into the water before she can put her feet in - the shoe dissolves immediately. The sea on Marinus is highly acidic, which explains why some of the sand on the beach has been turned to glass. This is the first time the Doctor has ever seen an acid sea on one of his travels, but this is far from the only unusual thing on Marinus.

A group called the Voord have also landed on this beach, having arrived in acid-resistant one-man submersibles, and are stalking around the grounds of a nearby building, knives in hand. Within this building, our travellers find a man named Arbitan, who watches over a machine called the Conscience of Marinus. Created two thousand years ago, the machine began as "a judge and jury that was never wrong and unfair." Over time, the machine was improved to a point where it was able to radiate a power that influenced the mind of every person on the planet. People no longer had to choose between right and wrong, the machine guided them. For seven hundred years, Marinus knew nothing of robbery, fear, hate, or violence. Then a man named Yartek and his followers, the Voord, found a way to resist the influence of the Conscience and started running roughshod over the peaceful people who were still under the machine's control.

To keep the Conscience from falling into the hands of the Voord, who would certainly use it for some terrible purpose, five key micro-circuits were removed from the machine and hidden in places around the planet. Arbitan holds one of the keys and needs help gathering the other four. He has been working on the machine, he thinks he has found a way to make its power irresistible even to the Voord and he's ready to get it running again. He has sent assistants out to gather the keys before, he even sent out his daughter Sabetha, but none have ever returned. He wants the Doctor, Susan, and their school teacher companions from 1960s England, Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton, to retrieve the keys for him.

Our heroes at first decline to help, they need to continue on. So Arbitan surrounds the TARDIS with an invisible force field and threatens to leave them outside with no food or water if they don't get the keys for him. Forced into it, the set out to collect the keys with the help of wristwatch-like devices that will teleport them to the places where the keys have been hidden.


I really enjoy the Keys of Marinus serial because it is a simple, straightforward adventure with a very clear objective that is laid out right in the first episode, which is titled The Sea of Death. The Doctor and his companions need to gather the four hidden keys and get them back to the Conscience, and that's just what we watch them do over the course of the next five episodes - The Velvet Web, The Screaming Jungle, The Snows of Terror, Sentence of Death, and The Keys of Marinus.

Gathering the keys isn't an easy endeavor, there's some sort of struggle to get to each one. First the characters find themselves in the city of Morphoton, where living brains in jars keep the residents in a "deep form of deep hypnosis" (that's pretty deep), making them believe they have everything they could possibly want. Thankfully, Barbara is able to see through their trickery and release the minds of the people of Morphoton - some of whom turn out to be Arbitan's lost helpers, including his daughter.

Another key is hidden in a booby-trapped temple in the midst of a jungle that has been brought to life by growth experiments. This serial has living vines going after people years before The Evil Dead. When the next twist of the teleport devices takes Ian and Barbara to a snowbound area with subzero temperatures, they're taken in by a wolf trapper named Vasor, who may be a thieving murderer. If Vasor doesn't get them, the wolves and key-guarding Ice Soldiers might. Ian himself is accused of murder when they jump to the next location.


Something I was surprised to find when first watching these early chapters of Doctor Who is that the actors were sometimes allowed to take breaks while the show was still filming, instead of just during a hiatus between seasons / series. The Keys of Marinus is an example of that, as the Doctor teleports ahead of his companions and isn't featured in some of the middle episodes of the serial. Actor William Hartnell got some time off and the companions take over the show in his absence. Joined by Sabetha and Altos, another friend of Arbitan's, they prove quite capable of keeping the show going themselves.

Hartnell returns in time for the Doctor to serve as Ian's defense attorney in his murder trial when the serial unexpectedly becomes a murder mystery courtroom drama. And on Marinus, you're guilty until proven innocent.


I find The Keys of Marinus to be a lot of fun. The keys are in interesting places and the serial moves along at a quick pace, always keeping me invested because I want to see what is going to be thrown at the characters next and how they're going to get out of the predicaments. I'm not as into the court / mystery stuff as I am in the hypnosis / jungle / snowy chapters, but it all works. The simplicity of the serial is due to the fact that it was written quickly as a last minute replacement for another serial that was dropped off the schedule - called The Hidden Planet, it would have been about a twin planet to Earth that is ruled by women. The Hidden Planet never was filmed, although elements of the ideas would be used in later serials. As far as I'm concerned, The Keys of Marinus benefited from its fast and simple assemblage.

The keys are gathered, Yartek and the Voords are dealt with, and the travellers get back to the TARDIS. If you know the pattern, you know where they'll be going next.

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